12,000 Starbucks partners gather in Chicago for leadership experience


CHICAGO – The Windy City is a place of firsts for Starbucks. In 1987, when the company was looking to open its first U.S. store outside of its home base of Seattle, it picked Chicago – a successful experiment that helped give the company confidence to grow across the country and around the world.

Now, more than 30 years later, Chicago is the setting for another first – Starbucks largest-ever employee conference. This week, 12,000 store managers and field leaders are gathering for the Starbucks Leadership Experience, a three-day event designed to help transform leaders and solidify the foundation of an enduring company. It began Wednesday (Sept. 4) with a community service expo at McCormick Place Convention Center, engaging with more than 35 community service organizations like Chicago Cares, the American Red Cross and Feeding America.

The event officially kicks off today (Sept. 5) with the opening general session at United Center for more than 10,000 store managers from company-operated and licensed stores from across the United States and Canada – plus 2,000 regional leaders, the senior leadership team and staff. It marks the first such gathering since its 2012 Global Leadership Conference in Houston, and the first under the leadership of Starbucks chief executive officer Kevin Johnson.

“This is the largest partner experience in our company history, and a signal of our commitment to store managers and field leaders who are well positioned to lead us forward,” said Johnson in a letter to Starbucks partners earlier today

After the general session, attendees will take part in a series of interactive leadership sessions at McCormick Place over the next two days, with topics that include customer service, partner development, growing your business, and mental health awareness. Participants will also immerse themselves in the Starbucks story at the Experience Hall, which will follow the journey of coffee and Starbucks from bean to cup. The event will conclude Friday night with an inspirational closing general session at United Center.

“At this transformative time for the company, we must continue to have the wisdom to honor our heritage and stay true to Our Mission and Values, while at the same time have the courage to boldly reimagine the future of Starbucks,” said Johnson.

Here’s how the largest employee gathering in the company’s history breaks down by the numbers from largest to smallest.

While store managers are at the Leadership Experience, 11 million customers a day will be served at their stores in the United States and Canada.

Leadership Experience is occupying nearly 800,000 square feet of learning and meeting space at McCormick Place, including the 300,000 square foot Experience Hall. United Center covers another 960,000 square feet.

The 10,000 store managers attending have an average tenure of 7.5 years.

Attendees will spend over 60,000 hours in six leadership development sessions.

A typical attendee walks more than 17,000 steps each day between courses and event.

Includes over 10,000 store managers from the United States, Canada and licensed stores plus field leaders, senior leaders, and support staff.

Partners in the Experience Hall will immerse themselves in coffee’s journey, from raking beds of drying coffee beans to trying out new brewing equipment.

The opening and closing sessions of the Leadership Experience, one of 200 events held each year at the largest arena in the U.S., will draw an audience of roughly 12,000 – about the same size as Ariana Grande’s concert there in 2017.

Since Starbucks opened its first store outside Seattle and Vancouver, B.C in Chicago on Oct. 19, 1987. The market now has more than 130 Starbucks stores including its South Side Community Store, five Starbucks Reserve coffee bars like the one in Wrigleyville, and 18 locations at O’Hare International Airport.

Partners will hear from more than a dozen different speakers at the general sessions and over 40 docents at the Experience Hall.

About 33 percent of partners attended the last Starbucks leadership conference in Houston in 2012.

In the Experience Hall, partners will walk through replicas of key places in Starbucks history, including: the original Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, its farm at Hacienda Alsacia in Costa Rica; and the Tryer Center the company’s innovation lab at its Seattle headquarters.

Kevin Johnson gave each store manager a ceremonial key to the Pike Place Market store at the opening general session, in honor of the store where Starbucks first began.


Photos by Joshua Trujillo and Connor Surdi